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The Three Biggest Storylines for the 2021 Gasparilla Bowl

It’s not just about what is going on during the game

Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl - Central Florida v Marshall Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Bowl season is synonymous with the holiday season. What happens during the holiday season? We get presents. The 2021 edition of the Union Home Mortage Gasparilla Bowl in Tampa between the UCF Knights and the Florida Gators has plenty of presents to give us. Not only do we get a matchup where the young upstart program goes up against the establishment, but we also have some other storylines that will be lingering around prior, during, and after the game.

The Hottest Ticket Outside of the New Year’s Six

As I’ve said on various predictions, podcasts, and live shows on Black and Gold Banneret, low and mid-tier bowls need a story or hook to generate buzz. The Gasparilla Bowl was able to find one by locking up two in-state schools in UCF and Florida.

Earlier this year the Knights and Gators agreed to a two-for-one deal that has the two meeting in Gainesville in 2024 before while the other two matchups are slated to occur in the 2030s. This gives that matchup an extra helping on a neutral field. Both schools have played in Raymond James Stadium recently with the Gators playing there against South Florida this season while UCF played South Florida there last year.

Even before this matchup, four of the top five highest attended Gasparilla Bowls (and previous aliases) involved UCF, including the highest attendance in the bowl’s last played game in 2019 at 28,987. Tickets for this matchup went fast. UCF on more than one occasion got more tickets to the game from bowl officials and still managed to sell them all. Raymond James Stadium holds about 65,618 seats. According to officials, the entire game is sold out. This will more than double the record UCF helped set in 2019.

Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl - Central Florida v Marshall
UCF won the 2019 Gasparilla Bowl with a record crowd that is expected to be doubled on Thursday.
Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

The secondary market has been busy moving tickets around as the game is still heavily in demand.

Florida remains the favorite, per DraftKings.

The Momentum is on UCF’s Side

The world of sports is definitely very sensitive to momentum.

UCF came into the season with high expectations after a disappointing 2020. Head coach Josh Heupel was hired away by Tennessee and the Knights brought in former Auburn coach Gus Malzahn. The buzz surrounding the program was deafening. ESPN decided to do a season of their Our Time program on UCF football, which brought fans behind the scenes and allowed them to experience portions of the program they would not have otherwise seen. Malzahn and UCF were mentioned multiple times by national pundits like Paul Feinbaum and publications such as ESPN.

NCAA Football: Connecticut at Central Florida
UCF head coach Gus Malzahn
Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

UCF’s season started strong but hit a wall after the third game of the season against Louisville, where not only did the Knights lose the game in dramatic fashion, they lost a slew of starting players that redefined the season. The expectations melted away and while some fans embraced despair, the team did not. After a 3-3 start, the Knights were able to use a backloaded home schedule to help propel them to an 8-4 finish and a tie for third in the American Athletic Conference.

Despite the high volume of injuries the Knights endured, they found ways to win, especially when surrounded by the home crowd, going 7-0 at home and 1-4 away. With the bowl game taking place on a neutral field and with a sellout crowd that could potentially be in favor of UCF fans, Thursday will provide more of a home game atmosphere than any of the road games the Knights have played this year.

The Gators limped to the finish, having to defeat rival Florida State to finish 6-6 and become bowl eligible. The Gators started 3-1, including a two-point loss to then top-ranked Alabama. Climbing as high as tenth in the polls, the wheels started to fall off after a loss at LSU that led to a tailspin where the Gators dropped four of their next five games leading to that final game at home against the Seminoles. This year has been mired in controversy and failed expectations that ultimately led to the firing of head coach Dan Mullen. Now the Gators are in between regimes as Louisiana coach Billy Napier has been hired to take over in 2022. While that resets the program next year, the Gators still have to finish 2021 with interim coach Greg Knox and the remnants of the old staff.

NCAA Football: Florida State at Florida
Florida interim head coach Greg Knox
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Is Florida Motivated?

I hate this question because it’s often used as an excuse if the bigger program loses, but in this case, there is some legit question to it. Hear me out.

Florida is undergoing a coaching regime change. Dan Mullen is out. Greg Knox is coaching in the interim and Billy Napier takes over after the game. With coaching changes, drama can ensue.

The biggest question mark surrounds the assistant coaches. While Mullen has already been shown the door, the other assistants are still on staff until after the game. Billy Napier is still building his staff. For those who might have a chance of being retained, this would be an opportunity to show their stuff. For those who have been told they are not being retained or have already been replaced, there are two potential thoughts here: They are either coaching to land a new job elsewhere or they are mailing it in and checking out. Right now, the Gators only have eight coaches left on staff. Of the eight that remain, Napier has already hired new coaches that could replace at least two of them. Many of his hires have followed him from Louisiana and have been filling support staff and analyst positions. This still leaves the possibility of one or multiple coaches potentially staying through the coaching change. This gives those coaches extra motivation.

Since the end of the regular season, six players have already entered the transfer portal, including wide receiver Jacob Copeland, who is transferring to Maryland, and Mohamoud Diabate, who has yet to commit. These are big losses. Copeland led the Gators in receiving, catching 39 passes for 607 yards and four touchdowns. Diabate led the team with 89 tackles. Other players who have entered the portal are Gerald Mincey, Khris Bogle, Lloyd Summerall, and Dante Zanders. While players leaving can be demoralizing, the players who step up tend to be hungry and are looking for an opportunity to showcase for the incoming coaching staff.

One player who has announced that he is leaving, but hasn’t entered the portal yet is starting quarterback Emory Jones. Jones has stated that he plans on playing in the bowl game and is willing to transfer anywhere. Considering Jones’ situation and desire, expect him to be very motivated. This is an audition on an exclusive national stage. With his intentions known, schools will be watching.

NCAA Football: Florida at Missouri
Florida QB Emory Jones
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

For comparative purposes, since the end of the regular season, UCF has had five players enter the portal. However, unlike Florida, these players were not major contributors this season. The most notable is quarterback Dillon Gabriel, but Gabriel got hurt at the end of the third game and did not play the rest of the season. Since the point of injury, UCF put the ball in Mikey Keene’s hands and it’s been his team since. With Gabriel’s transfer, it ends the chatter of whether he’s going to play or not and creates less noise around the team.

Another thing to consider regarding motivation. Many of the players on both Florida and UCF know each other. One side does not want to lose to the other because they’re not going to want to hear the noise that will follow. It’s safe to say and to be preemptive in case excuses start being made: Florida is motivated.

This edition of the Union Home Mortgage Gasparilla Bowl will take place in Tampa, Florida at Raymond James Stadium on Thursday, December 23rd. The game will kick off at 7:00 pm and be broadcast by ESPN.

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